Knives And Skin Explained-If Twin Peaks Was A Panty-Sniffing Musical
IFC Midnight’s newest Knives and Skin from Jennifer Reeder is a pink neon-hued, depressing trip to The Breakfast Club, but with singing.
The style over substance film that premiered at Fantastic Fest set in the current time but full of ’80s New Wave hits slowed down and Emo-ed up, is strangely captivating. I wanted to write it off as just too absurd but found myself mesmerized by the horrendous people and weird circumstances.
More the story of the aftermath of a teen girl’s disappearance and death than a mystery of who did it, Knives is a disturbing look at suburbia gone very wrong. Reeder channels David Lynch’s surrealism and themes with parents that behave worse than their children, and children with overly mature problems.
The female-fronted cast includes a daring fashionista, a cheerleader, an enterprising capitalist, forbidden lovers who find interesting ays to express their affection, and a trio of desperate housewives with plenty of their own baggage. Reeder pulls commendable performances from this mostly inexperienced cast with Marika Engelhardt( the dead girl’s mother Lisa) and Grace Smith(Joanna) both delivering elevated characters. There is a level of unhinged uncertainty about Engelhardt that makes her both sympathetic and terrifying. Smith is a runaway train of resolute doggedness and vulnerability.
The situational danger these two women find themselves in is the most compelling of the film. Neither is explored as completely as they should be, unfortunately. Just as something deep or profound will be revealed, superficiality takes hold and off they go again. The concept that boys who are allowed to behave badly grow up to be men that hit on their students and buy used underwear is hinted at but not fleshed out.
Equally perplexing is the dead girl’s Mom, also the school’s choir director, who initially presents as a slasher herself as she breaks into her daughter’s room with a large knife. When her daughter goes missing she descends into madness. Grief can make us do terrible things. In her case, have sex with a high school boy out of a nasty need to both feel her daughter and feel more like her daughter. This scene, in particular, is tragicomedy at it’s best. If both actors were not as committed it could have gone very poorly.
The music plays a major part.
Any lover of ’80’s music will recognize all of the songs sang mournfully(even if the song wasn’t originally) by the cast. Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Go’s, Blue Monday by New Order, and Naked Eyes’ Promises, Promises that is as haunting as they come. A searing indictment on absentee, narcissistic parents and entitled pushy men. Blue Monday stripped down and in slow motion is a mantra for any high schooler, especially female ones. “Tell me how to feel”, the girls sling barbs at each other and the adults in their lives.
Even the rare happy song from Cyndi Lauper gets an emotional treatment. Modern English’s Melt With You becomes an anthem for hidden love and acceptance. Birds Fly(Whisper To A Scream) by the Icicle Works is about escape and its placement in the film highlights that conceit. There is a level of angst that only classics from that era can capture.
Why does the wound on Andy’s head glow and remain unhealed?
Carolyn Harper first carves her initial in Andy’s head at the beginning of the movie. He lets her because he’s a teen boy who thinks he’s about to get some. She rebukes him and he leaves her alone, without her glasses where she dies accidentally. It is not explained why his wound glows or why it never heals, but likely it is a scarlet letter imposed by the deceased. A guilty reminder of his part in her death. In the minds of her Mom and friends, she was larger than life. A beacon for bigger and better things.
That t-shirt tiger drops some truth.
One of the most trippy scenes is a morphing tiger who comes to life right off Joanna’s Mom’s shirt. Is she hallucinating? The never-ending supply of drugs Joanna has to sell seems to point at heavy medication and mental illness so either option would be believable. Mom sleeps on a aluminum foil pillow and never changes clothes or leaves the house. More concerned with the condition of her daughter’s nails than the fact she is selling used panties she is terrible caregiver.
She is married to a sad clown(not a joke, and actual clown) who has been hiding his unemployment and affair from her for months. The tiger tells her things she should know and seems to inherently understand. Basically the tiger is her internal cheerleader telling her to pull it together and collect herself. She is ultimately able to do neither and Joanna is forced to act as a parent to her own mother when the secrets come out.
How did Carolyn actually die?
As horrible as Andy is, and he is the worst, he didn’t kill her. He left her essentially blinded without her glasses and alone. She simply fell, hit her head, and died from an undiagnosed heart condition. There is no big twist, just the mundane reality of life. Sometimes people die, even young ones. The film is concerned with those who are left behind rather than what happened to Carolyn.
Knives and Skin is a gorgeous shell of an incomplete idea. All of the pieces are present for an impactful statement on womanhood, callous sociopathy, malignant parenting, and small-town secrets. Similar to cult classic Gummo small-town life is a disease and all of the awful people and things that happen there are the symptoms. I just wish we could have examined those things more seriously instead of flitting off like the wind each time things got heady. Perhaps that was the point though. Just as Joanna sells her vodka spiked tampons with a “splash of cranberry for drama”, Reeder lightly flits from one sad situation to another for dramatic purposes only. Like teens who talk with more subtext than needed because they think it makes them sound older, Knives makes promises it can’t keep.
As the Television Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.